“400 years and it’s the same philosophy. I’ve said it’s 400 years. Look, how long and the people they still can’t see… “ Peter Tosh, 400 Years
I am descended from immigrants. My third great-grandfather (one of the 16) came into New York harbor from England in 1837, as a young man of 21. He was Welsh — his parents actually wrote and thus I assume spoke in Welsh — but apparently decided the life of service chosen by his sisters was not for him. So he left his family — mother, father, and two sisters — and first went to Liverpool seeking a better life. Factory work did not satisfy him either, however, and in 1837 he left mother England, the only land he had ever known, behind to join an uncle in New York in the lumber business. My third great-grandfather — let’s call him Grandfather Hugh — never saw his family again, though his sister did keep up a regular correspondence with her brother in America.
Back then one could still obtain land in America simply by being white, male, and expressing an interest in it, provided it was not already claimed by the government or another white male. In this manner and probably for other reasons now unknown, my Grandfather Hugh came to obtain a large tract of timberland in the coastal region of Virginia. My Grandfather Hugh appears in the census of 1860, at which point he is shown as a farmer and carpenter with a wife of 11 years who was 14 years younger, three children (including a seven-year old son who became my grandfather’s grandfather), and six slaves valued at $1,200. According to the family history, Grandfather Hugh had done quite well in the lumber business after moving to Virginia.
Slaves were recorded on a separate “schedule” (meaning form) in the census of 1860, and I found this schedule on Ancestry.com last week. The moment of pause and closer consideration came as I looked at the document showing the ages of these six people, four males and two females, all recorded with my ancestor’s name because their own names were not meaningful to the Federal government at that time (though their dollar value was considered worth knowing). The four males were between the ages of 22 and 16 in 1860, so not that different than the age of my third great-grandfather when he decided to set out into the world.
The ideal is these United States were founded and built by people who sailed across the Atlantic seeking a better life for themselves and greater opportunity their descendants. The American ideal remains that no matter who you are or what geographic or economic circumstances a person is born into, an American can lift themselves up into a better life with ambition and hard work and by simply availing themselves of the opportunities America offers all of its citizens. And these ideals have held true, more or less, for my Grandfather Hugh and his descendants, right on down to me. Grandfather Hugh took a huge risk coming to America on a boat in 1837, and America has rewarded him and his descendants for his risk.
In 1860 and in Virginia, no one made any pretense that this American ideal applied to anyone other than white males, but here in 2017 the ideal is supposed to apply to all law-abiding Americans, regardless of race, creed, color, or sex. Looking at the schedule of the 1860 census listing my Grandfather Hugh’s slaves, I became struck by the differences in the way America treated my ancestor starting when he got here at the age of 21, and the way America treated those slaves, taking the 22-year old for instance. Consider –
My Grandfather Hugh was welcomed into New York harbor, passing through an immigrant processing station at Castle Garden in lower Manhattan and then being taken into the business of a family member. America offered up a bountiful tract of land for him to own and work, and this land gave him both sustenance and profit. His male heirs have also been self-made men, from what I have learned, business owners, active members of their communities, and providers for their families. A portion of this same land remains in my family to this day.
I have no way of knowing what became of the descendants of my ancestor’s 22-year old male slave, since the census form did not even show his name, but let’s call him James. As a writer with a passing knowledge of Virginia and U.S. history, however, I can imagine. James was born into slavery, descended from people brought here naked, seized in eastern Africa and shipped here in chains and packed into the hold of ship hip to hip with little room to move around and no opportunity to even see the sun during the passage. Grandfather Hugh probably purchased James when James was still a boy, from either another landowner in the county or a slave trading business in Richmond; Grandfather Hugh chose to leave his family behind, but I expect James was taken from his family by force and amidst fear and tears. While slavery was already illegal in the England my ancestor left behind in 1837, I guess he had no qualms about purchasing people with the profits from his lumber business during the 1850s. Profiting from the forced, unpaid labor of others was one opportunity that America granted my ancestor that Mother England would not.
I can imagine that James found freedom in the period between 1862 and 1865, possibly by escaping eastward during the Union Army’s peninsular campaign toward Richmond in 1862. Yet, even with his freedom James and his descendants may not have ever got to equal footing with the descendants of my Grandfather Hugh in America. America gave my Grandfather Hugh a hand up from the moment he stepped onto these shores, and he is to be credited for taking full advantage of these opportunities. President Lincoln gave James his freedom, and the 13th Amendment guaranteed James’ descendants their freedom, but the hand up ended there. Reconstruction ended in 1876, when James would have been 36 and probably had a family of his own. From that point on in Virginia, any sons and daughters of James would have been denied easy access to a vote and the right to the same educational opportunities as the sons and daughters of my Grandfather Hugh. As blacks, James and his descendants would have been automatically assumed as inferior to their white neighbors by most people, and not worthy of being considered a full member of the community; separate and unequal. By 1964, so about 100 years and three generations after James first found freedom, the United States promised his descendants the same civil rights as those descended from the English and Europeans, including the right to go to the same schools and the right to have the same access to vote. Yet here we are more than 50 years and working on another three generations down the road and civil rights, equal treatment under the law, and equal access to a vote for African Americans remain topics of heated debate and in the view of many of us, a source of ongoing national shame, here in America.
I have been thinking about immigration a lot in the last year, and looking closer at both my own family stories and also imagining the family stories of my neighbors and how they came to be here in this same community in America. According to the American ideal, both my son and the fifth generation descendent of my third-great grandfather’s slaves should be born into the same land of opportunities, and should have equal opportunities in their pursuit of happiness, should they show the proper ambition, work ethic, and respect for the laws of the land. And I will happily and proudly proclaim that America has evolved greatly in this regard; the ideal is true, but I fear and believe that the more common reality is not true. Separate and unequal economic opportunities, community acceptance, incarceration rates, and even access to the voting booth persist here in America.
Our bold American experiment is that we have and can continue to create a thriving democratic republic here in America that guarantees life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all of its citizens. Further, we can offer these freedoms under societal conditions otherwise unknown in human history, as a melting pot of cultures and colors gathered together from around the rest of Mother Earth, all of us descendants of people who came here from elsewhere. Taken as a whole and considering the full arc of U.S. history, this experiment is working, but right now I know I’m not the only one that fears our culture is fraying in dangerous ways. To understand why, I want to first look closer and better understand the difference in the American opportunity for my son, descended from those who came here seeking opportunity, and the descendants of slaves, brought here so that others may profit and then all too often regarded as secondary citizens for at least 100 years after their emancipation.
Next week, I plan to look closer and yet more broadly at the bold American experiment, and the way our nation is working toward the ideal “out of many, one.” To improve our national comity, I believe we must first seek to understand our influences, and what drives us to act the way we act. I have sought to become self-aware as an individual, and I am dreaming of an America where we become more self-aware as a society; self-aware and open about the good, the bad, and the ugly.
“Down in the shadow of the penitentiary, out by the gas fires of the refinery. I’m ten years burning down the road, nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go. Born in the USA, I was born in the USA…” Bruce Springsteen, Born in the USA